Sam Mays is catching on

Sam Mays is catching on

CHAMPAIGN — Sam Mays was among the last players on the Memorial Stadium practice fields Tuesday morning, taking reps off a JUGS machine. Mays had one of Illinois' managers holding on to a towel wrapped around his arm, simulating a physical defensive back.

Mays took ball after ball off the machine working on hauling in contested catches. It's not an unusual sight.

The senior wide receiver is regularly among the last players on the practice field taking extra reps, either with one of the Illini quarterbacks or solo.

"I'm just honing my craft trying to make sure that I'm ready when the opportunity comes," Mays said. "I always try to get in extra work. I try not to be satisfied with what I've been doing so far."

Mays' 2018 season so far has seem him make eight catches for 89 yards — eight more receptions and 89 more yards than he had last season when he didn't factor into former offensive coordinator Garrick McGee's plans.

Mays also led the Illini with four receptions for 42 yards in Illinois' 34-14 victory against Western Illinois on Saturday.

"I'm not really so much focused on the stats or anything like that specifically," Mays said.

"I just want to maximize my opportunity and just help the team as much as I can and make plays so I can keep making more plays," Mays continued. ... "What I wanted to focus on from last season to now was creating separation and making those contested catches — especially with my size. The ball is going to be on me, so I need to make sure I come down with it."

Mays' responsibilities have only increased in the last month, as Illinois' wide receiver corps was struck by both injuries and suspension. The Illini lost Appalachian State transfer Shaedon Meadors before training camp even started. Then Carmoni Green was suspended indefinitely heading into the season opener, and both Mikey Dudek and Edwin Carter went down with season-ending knee injuries in the first two games.

"Sam's been consistent since camp in August," Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "Sam's a big-bodied kid that's got good ball skills. I think he'll tell you he's not the fastest guy, but he understands how to get open and he understands how to attack the football.

"I like Sam and think Sam's a really good wideout for us. With all these guys going down, we're going to rely on Sam more than ever moving forward."

While Ricky Smalling should return for Saturday's 2:30 p.m. kickoff against South Florida in Chicago after missing last week's game, Mays will continue to be a top option in the passing game for whichever quarterback — AJ Bush Jr. or M.J. Rivers II — is running the offense.

"I've got to make up for some of the people we've lost," Mays said. "(But) that shouldn't stop us from being successful within the offense. We've got to come out here and practice — stay healthy during practice — and be ready for the game."

Illinois almost didn't even have the 6-foot-3 Texan as an option. Mays initially expressed an intent to transfer in early December after he played in just seven games and had zero receptions last season. Just shy of two months later — after plenty of discussion — he changed his mind.

"It was really a family decision," Mays said. "I talked to my family a lot. I was pretty much talking to them every day trying to pick their mind. I talked to coach (Andrew Hayes-Stoker) and coach Lovie Smith. (Illinois) was for me. I'm glad I'm here."

What Mays has shown throughout training camp and the first two weeks of the season is what he felt like he could always do. He played in all 12 games as a true freshman in 2015, set career highs with 13 receptions for 158 yards in 2016 and then dropped out of Illinois' receiver rotation entirely.

Knowing he has the confidence of the Illinois coaching staff to be a key part of the offense has helped him start this season on a positive note.

"I've always known that I can make these plays and help the team out," Mays said. "It was really just about showing it to the coaches. That's what I tried to do during camp, and it's what I'm going to continue to do.

"You talk about players' confidence, you play better when you play confident. You play more free. That just helps elevate your game as well when going against really good competition."